Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway star in a scene from Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the long-running stage show. CNS photo/Universal Studios

Les Misérables makes the transition from stage to screen

By  Erik Canaria and Ruane Remy, The Catholic Register
  • December 21, 2012

Once thought unfilmable, the musical classic of Les Misérables has transcended the stage onto the silver screen.

It's the story of Jean Valjean, newly released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's son. After breaking his parole, he takes on a new identity, reinventing himself as a man of repute in early 1800s France. But due to his inaction, one of his factory workers, Fantine, sells her possessions to support her young daughter and, when nothing is left, sells herself.

In debt to Fantine, Valjean takes guardianship of her daughter, Cosette. But he can never rest. Pursued by police inspector Javert for almost two decades, Valjean and Cosette find themselves in the midst of the 1832 June rebellion in Paris.

Hugh Jackman masterfully embodies the role of Jean Valjean. As an angry, bitter convict, he finds salvation through the kindness of a bishop, who is played by the original 1985 Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson.

Jackman, like the rest of the cast, sings every take live. And hopefully, this will start a trend in on-screen, musicals. Acting through singing can only be done best when live. With pre-recordings of soundtracks, actors lose spontaneity in range of vocal and physical expressions and audiences lose the ability to easily fall in love with each performance. The actors rarely falter, save Russell Crowe's voice, which did not always match his topnotch acting as Javert.

Samantha Barks, who also played the role of Éponine on stage, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife  also deserve special special mentions for their unexpected portrayals.

Though many actors will surprise audiences, Anne Hathaway's portrayal of Fantine was honest and heartbreaking. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," viewed in one single shot, evoked tears from moviegoers while expressing vulnerability and fragility. Her deep emotional nuances would not have been seen from a distant stage and would have been insufficiently experienced without Tom Hooper's expert use of closeups.

Hooper's directorial style is also characterized by his use of panoramic shots used to draw viewers into the time period. As the film goes on, the world of Les Mis feels more full, more round, more multi-layered than the world of the stage and of what average films at times offer.

Diehard fans of the play, however, should be warned that songs have been reordered and lyrics sometimes changed, but for the betterment of the film. Also be prepared for that awkward moment where  the epic songs make you want to stand up and cheer, but you restrain yourself because you're in a movie theatre. But if you're confident in your love of Les Mis, stand up and cheer anyway.

Les Mis opens in theatres Christmas Day.

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